Saturday, October 31, 2015

EarthBound: DEAD HEAT

Happy Halloween, boys and ghouls! Today I left the tricks at home, and brought you a special treat. BOO and GHOSTS and WHATNOT! SPOOKY CANDY SKELETON 

Yes, it's Halloween again, Charlie Brown, and I'm going to buck the trend by posting something scary. 

I originally wrote Earthbound: DEAD HEAT for's "SummerBound" competition. It won first place in the writing category. I've proven that I can write better material than half-hearted attempts by 17-year-olds, so you know this is going to be AWESOME.

Twenty years after the Chosen Four defeat Giygas, memories of the past begin to haunt Ness. To get his mind off things, he and his daughter decide to take a vacation to the ultimate resort town, Summers, during a heat wave that’s been turning Eagleland into a sauna.

And for a while, it’s paradise. But something’s definitely rotten in Summers…

Hope you enjoy!


Chapter 1

I could still hear the drill boring into my skull.
I bolted upright, the sheet fluttering off my chest. The fleeting memory of being a soul in a robotic shell dissolved in the rays of fresh sunlight.
For 20 years, that day had been the furthest thing from my mind. Great friends, gourmet food, the glimmer of the sun on Paula’s hair – all I remembered was a summer vacation that seemed like it would never end.
That was, up until about a month ago when the nightmares began. Memories of love took a backseat to the foul odor of the sewers, the sting of combat, and the whirr of Dr. Andonuts’ drill.
Six in the morning. I never understood waking up early to have fun, but a vacation would do me good, said my wife. As I slid out of bed, the door creaked open and blue eyes peered at me, filled with adolescent joy and wonder.
“I’m so excited I think I’m going to pop, like a balloon! Boom!”
“Yeah, honey, me too,” I said. “Summers is the happiest place in Eagleland.”
I felt the wind off the door as it flew open, and in a flash, Skye was doing and array of jumps and flips on the mattress.
“Honey,” I reminded sternly. The bouncing stopped.
“Mommy wouldn’t like that, huh.”
“No, she wouldn’t,” I replied, pulling on a T-shirt. “And it’s way too hot for that anyway.”
Forgetting about the bed, my daughter was soon engrossed in her Gameboy. Over the peppy, tinny music of some fantasy world, she muttered, “I wish Mommy was here.”
I did too. But at that very moment, Serrah was probably suffering through some hackneyed presentation about appealing to today’s youth though pop-up ads or achieving marketing nirvana through tracking customer spending habits. We’ve had our trip booked forever, but she couldn’t skip that conference. Thankfully, she was only missing the first night.
“Mommy will meet us there tomorrow,” I said. That seemed to comfort her, but I could never quite tell when she had her nose stuck in a video game like that.
At the kitchen table, Skye hurriedly shoveled Cheerios into her face, as if eating quickly would make the plane show up faster. I smiled. In my youth, I had spiraled hundreds of years back in time and saved the world. But my greatest accomplishment was sitting across from me, slurping milk out of a bowl that was just a bit too big for her hands.
In the old days, I would have just teleported to Summers. But since we took down Pokey and Giygas all those years ago, my PSI power faded. Teleportation was one of the first skills to go. And about a month ago, I could barely heal a scrape Skye got while riding her bike too fast down the driveway and wiping out at the bottom. Then again, I guess I don’t need PSI if I’m living this normal life.
Well, as normal a life as you can have trying to explain to neighbors why you receive enthusiastic birthday cards each year from the King of Dalaam.
Sweat drenched my forehead. The air conditioner was cranked up as far as it could go, but the heat wave that had gripped Eagleland for the last two weeks had other ideas. Early morning had been the coolest, but today, it already felt like high noon. With school over, Skye didn’t seem to mind. Just give her a Gamboy and watch her go. I, however, felt like the sweltering snowman in that old Campbell’s soup commercial. In the last few days, I been caught in my skivvies with my head in the freezer more times than I’d care to admit. Good thing Serrah takes “in sickness and in health” seriously, because the amount of cash we’ve been putting into our cooling costs lately has made us both feel a bit queasy.
We didn’t have to leave for another 15 minutes, so I switched on the tube and flopped on the couch. Skye sat next to me, Gameboy in hand.
It was some sort of news segment about the excessive heat. The network was having a field day.
“…what’s most alarming, say experts, is that Winters is beginning to thaw. Physicist and climate expert Dr. Jeffery Andonuts says he’s beginning worry.”
There was Jeff, wearing the white lab coat he probably hasn’t taken off since college. Though I haven’t seen him since graduation – and he’d been much too busy for personal visits since at least sophomore year – it always felt great to see him making such a name for himself. Some people even say he’ll surpass his father’s genius. The rest think he already has.
“This is most unusual,” Jeff explained. “The Winters permafrost hasn’t thawed since the advent of recorded history. This heat wave could have worldwide repercussions.”
There was a twang of fear in Jeff’s voice that I had only heard once before when our lives were in danger. My stomach clenched up.
Skye tugged on my arm.
“Daddy, it’s almost time to go!” she yelled. “We don’t wanna miss our plane, right?”
The TV screen went black as I slipped my sneakers on.
“We certainly don’t,” I replied.
The oppressive heat hit us like a haymaker as we made our way to the car.

Chapter 2

            Skye looked like some kind of sun shy ghost. I slathered even more SPF 2,000 sunblock on her shoulders.
            “Daddy, I want to build a sand castle and go in the water already!”
            She shot free of my grip, fell to her knees, and started making “sand angels.” Then, with sand sticking to her like Shake N’ Bake, she trotted to the water and, with her hands at her sides, jumped into the shallow waves and wiggled around like a beached fish.
            I wondered if I had been that energetic, or weird, when I was six.
            The beach at Summers has always been a spectacular vacation destination and it was especially popular in this heat. Temperatures creeping past 100 degrees couldn’t keep the beach bums away. Thousands of beachgoers were sunbathing, swimming in the ocean, and paying way too much for Gelato de Resort sold from a small refrigerated cart by some sweat-soaked entrepreneur.           
I patted myself on the back for setting up our hotel reservations so early in advance.
            Lying on the beach towel and closing my eyes, I must have dozed off. I was started awake by a woman’s voice.
            “Skye?” I asked, my eyes adjusting to the light. I put my hand out and found her playing in the sand next to me.
            “Oh, I’m sorry to startle you, sir,” said the voice. “I was wondering if you or your daughter wanted a magic tart.”
            “Hey, I know you!” I exclaimed. “You’re the magic cake lady!”
            “You must be mistaken, sir, I only make magic tarts,” she replied.
            “Ma’am, about 20 years ago, you used to go to the Stoic Club, right?” I asked. “I was the one of the boys who helped rekindle your love of baking, remember?”
            She slowly nodded.
            “I thought it was you,” she said. “I just felt compelled to walk over to you and your daughter out of all the people on the beach.”
            She reached into her cart. I was getting ready to tell her that we didn’t want any magic tarts when she whipped out a fully decorated cake.
            “Every so often, I’ll still make a magic cake,” she explained. “I don’t advertise it, but there’s some people who’ll pay a pretty penny for some. Here, it’s on the house for an old friend.”
            She waved goodbye and headed off. I waved back, put the cake in some Tupperware, and stashed it in our beach bag.
            After a few hours of fun in the sun, Skye and I washed up at L’hotel De Summers and grabbed a bite to eat at the Summers Restaurant. Jeff’s old friend Tony has run the restaurant with his partner, Steve, for the last seven or eight years and has refused to let me pay since Serrah and I ate there during our honeymoon.
            I knew Tony was happy to see us, but we noticed something about his demeanor was off. When I shook his hand on the way out, I asked what was bothering him.
            “Honestly, Ness, I’ve had this really bad feeling lately,” he said. “There’s something not right about this heat. Have you seen Jeff on the news talking about it? This isn’t normal.”
            I suggested that it was probably going to be over soon. “I don’t think there’s anything to worry about.”
            To tell the truth, I wasn’t so sure about that.
            Skye was already outside. It was barely 5 p.m., but the beach that had been jam-packed only two hours before was nearly deserted. Maybe it was because the sun was beginning to set. Or maybe everyone had headed off to the theater down the street for one of those free concerts they sometimes have?
            “I don’t want to go to the hotel yet,” she said. “Let’s take a walk on the beach and maybe we can go in the pool later.”
            The idea of going anywhere near that beach made me uneasy. But there was nothing to be afraid of, right? There was still some daylight left and it wasn’t like everyone had disappeared. There were just fewer people than I would have expected.
            “After you,” I said, waving my hand towards the beach.
            We walked for a while towards the Toto port, with Skye occasionally throwing sand in the air like confetti or stopping to examine the odd seashell. We were a little ways off from where beachgoers normally trek.
The setting sun streaked the skies amber and red, tinting the surf the same colors.
The excited clamor of Summers after dark had faded. The chatter of the seagulls looking for handouts might as well have been coming from Fourside. Even the waves seemed to have stopped. All I could hear was Skye carrying on about how she wished Mommy were here to see her newest find, “The smoothest, biggest rock ever.”
            Swirling around us was the clean scent of the ocean, but also a hint of something else – rot. Things wash up on the beach all the time and it wasn’t unreasonable to assume an unfortunate fish had found its way ashore. We kept walking, but the smell only got stronger.
I looked around. My daughter and I were the only people on the beach.
“Ok, honey, I think it’s time to go back,” I said. “I don’t see anyone else around so I think we might have gone farther than we’re allowed.”
“But what about them, Daddy?” She pointed out into the distance.
Two silhouettes were headed in our direction. Not sure how I missed them. I breathed a sigh of relief – I’d let those decades old bad memories get the best of me.
Skye was already jogging towards them.
I waved. “Nice night for a walk, right?” I yelled.
No response. They shambled ever closer.
“Honey, wait for Daddy,” I said sternly. She just kept running.
Suddenly Skye screeched to a halt, like she had reached the end of a map in one of her video games.
I was close enough now to see them. Deep, black pools for eyes. Grey, tattered flesh hanging from their arms like rags. No lips to hide their teeth, which were dripping with a dark, viscous fluid.
A boney hand lashed out.
She flailed in the monster’s grasp!
Out of nowhere, a massive chill surrounded us. Then, a low, guttural wail of pain.
Skye slid out of her attacker’s hands before they cracked off and fell in the sand like a discarded towel. The grotesque body froze and shattered like crystal.
PSI! Skye could use PSI!
I eyed a piece of driftwood about a foot away and dove for it. It wasn’t a baseball bat, but it would have to do.
“Leave us alone! Leave us both the hell alone!”
The crunch of wood on bone echoed across the sea. Decaying, green blood seeped into the sand.
I don’t remember grabbing my daughter and sprinting back to the hotel room. What I do recall is the chaos. It looked like most people had hightailed it out of Summers while we had been eating dinner, leaving only hordes of the undead roaming the streets. Moans shot through alleyways. The putrid air was inescapable. And although the moon had just began to peek over the skyline, the heat got worse and worse.
Bloody fingers brushed my sleeve as hurled my daughter into our room and slammed shut the door. Thank God the hotel used a swipe card system instead of keys.
I overturned the mattress, threw it against the door, and pushed the dresser in front.  
Tears streamed down Skye’s face. “What’s going on?”
“I don’t know, honey.” Sitting on the floor, I hugged her tight and tried to comfort her. “You did a really good job,” I blurted out.
            “I did what the lady in my dreams told me,” she said.
            “Lady? What lady?”
            “The nice blonde lady in pink dress who visits when I sleep,” she replied. “She told me I’d need to use what she taught me one day, but I thought it was just dreams. She said she couldn’t talk to my Daddy. She said something was wrong and you couldn’t hear her anymore.”
            Paula! But what was stopping her from contacting me like when we were kids?
A few minutes passed. My mind raced. What were we up against? How were we going to get out? What were we going to eat?
Eat… Yes! That was it!
“Daddy’s going to get some help, but that means you have to be brave for a while without him, okay?”
Skye nodded solemnly.
I fished through our beach bag, pulling out the magic cake from earlier. The entire slice was gone in two or three mouthfuls.
“Daddy? Daddy?”
My daughter’s voice got farther and farther away as a familiar land materialized peacefully in front of me.

Chapter 3

            The king’s eyes opened slowly. He was only halfway through his morning meditation, but a feeling of unease had come over him that was too strong to ignore. The Mu master stood up and surveyed his kingdom from atop his mountain perch.
            A merchant scurried to the market, shirtless children played games of warriors battling evil, and mothers and fathers fried up garlic for their morning meals. The heat that so bothered the rest of Eagleland wasn’t a problem for the good people of Dalaam, who saw it as sign of good luck to come.
            As he climbed down the rickety rope ladder, a breeze cooled his sweat-dripping face. He nodded happily. Even in a time of unease, the king had learned to appreciate the simplicity of life. He could see, hear, move, and think. His Mu training had taught him that those were all things for which to be eternally thankful.
            He walked down the dirt path to the castle, stopping briefly to greet his people. He was met with smiles and pleasantries, and genuine good will for their leader. But they also knew the King was moving with purpose. They let their ruler pass without the small talk that normally filled his joyful mornings.
The wind rustled through the vibrant vegetation just outside of the castle walls, and with the wind at his back, the King strode past his servants, through the throne room, and into his personal quarters. He opened the glass display on the wall for the first time in nearly two decades, carefully removing the jewel encrusted sheath.
In a single, smooth motion, he withdrew the sword, gently parting the air around him. He carefully affixed the fearsome weapon into his back.
From the chest on the floor, he obtained his cloak and bracer. Time had been kind to the old equipment and it still fit quite well.
He was ready.
Outside, the king closed his eyes, focusing on the weak psychic beacon of his friend. Summers. That was where he was needed.
The king shot up the dirt path in front of him, past the castle, toward the cliff’s edge. He leapt off the side, barreling down like a bullet.
And in a flash, he was gone.

Chapter 4

            From our hotel window on the fifth floor, my daughter and I could see about 100 of those monsters crowded around the hotel, waiting for us. Palm trees swayed in the summer breeze and the waves crashed lazily on the beach. From a helicopter, it must have looked like paradise.
            From where we were sitting, it was Hell on Earth.
A constant scratching on the door had kept us awake most of the night, and after the effects of the magic cake wore off, I stood guard over Skye until daybreak.
She saw it before I did.
            “Daddy, look!”
            Way off in the distance, the undead started… disappearing. It looked like a path was being cleared, like a lawnmower making a b-line through overgrown weeds, and it was quickly approaching. Somehow the undead didn’t notice the bodies falling around them. Whatever it was, it embodied stealth.
            “What is that thing?” Skye asked fearfully.
I smiled. “That’s not a thing, honey. It’s a king.”
The scratching on our door stopped. A few muffled moans outside the room prompted me to start tearing down the makeshift blockade that had kept us safe throughout the night. I waited for unbroken silence. That was my cue.
Peering into the hallway, I found myself face to face with King Poo. It was littered with rotting corpses. I could tell that he had done his best to dispatch the monsters as efficiently and painlessly as possible, on the off chance they might still be human enough to know suffering.
“Kept you waiting, huh?” he asked.
 “You’re pretty good,” I replied.
The King sheathed his sword. Skye ran over and hugged him around the neck.
“Uncle Poo!”
“It’s not just me, little one,” the King revealed.
Tony burst through the open door, out of breath and terrified out of his mind. He put his hands on his knees and sucked as much air into his lungs as he could.
“Tony, you’re alive!” I explained.
“Ness! Ness!” he stammered in-between gasps. He held something out to me. It was a small receiver phone, like the one Apple Kid had made all those years ago. I vaguely remembered Jeff giving a similar phone to Tony the summer they graduated from Snow Wood Boarding School. The words “best friends” were emblazoned on the back in Tony’s handwriting.
I grabbed it. “Hello?”
“Ness,” said a voice, calmly and firmly, “It’s Jeff. I’d love to catch up but we don’t have time for small talk. I’ve figured out the cause of this unnatural heat. It’s connected to your current situation, and unchecked, it could spell doom for Eagleland.”
Jeff explained that while researching the heat wave, he was taking readings near Stonehenge in Winters when he noticed that some of the years-old snow had melted, revealing what looked like the hatch to a World War II-style bomb shelter. Intrigued, he pried it open and climbed down. But what he found wasn’t a ham radio and a few copies Eagleland Digest from the ‘40s. Sprawling out before him, he said, was a secret laboratory that had been operating right under his nose for decades.
The rows of monitors were dim. Absent was the typical whirr of alien machinery we had come to know as kids. At the edge of the complex was a room with a single computer chair, facing towards an old computer. The monitor flickered.
There was someone in the chair.
The scientist didn’t wait for answers. He tore a small laser from his pocket and blasted over and over again. The room danced with explosive greens and purples. Whoever had been sitting there slumped to the floor with a sickening metallic clang.
A Starman. A single, standard model Starman. Jeff guessed that it hadn’t been functional for a long time.
That is, until it started talking: “DEAD-HEAT initiated June 5, 201X.”
“Define DEAD-HEAT,” Jeff commanded.
“DEAD-HEAT protocol: A failsafe in the event that Master Giygas is destroyed. Protocol calls for annihilation of the Chosen Four. Protocol failed to trigger upon Giygas’ defeat on June 5, 199X due to the event occurring in the past, before creation of DEAD-HEAT. Recent environmental scan initiated by Starman serial number SNS-006 revealed that Master Giygas no longer exists. Starman SNS-006 manually initiated DEAD-HEAT protocol as per programming.”
“What is the nature of DEAD-HEAT?” Jeff asked.
“A thermal signal to reanimate deceased organic life, emitted from a chosen ground zero throughout Eagleland. Dead tissue functions again and subjects begin their attack after an incubation period of 17.54 days. Subjects within 15 mile radius of ground zero will revive several hours earlier. The remains of Master Giygas, located in the Lost Underworld, will revive after an incubation period of 18.722 days.”
I suppressed my panic for Skye’s sake, but my eyes betrayed me as I sat down on the floor. She hugged me from behind. Would my daughter know the horror of another alien invasion?
Jeff’s urgency snapped me out of it.
            “If we can’t take care of this, Giygas will be reborn with an undead army at his command. There haven’t been reports of zombies anywhere else but Summers yet, so that area is likely the point of origin. Ness, you and your daughter are at ground zero. Whatever is causing this must not be far away from your current location.”
            The meteor. The sanctuary guardians. Heading back in time. I was scared then, too. But I’d done all of that with nothing but a baseball bat, my buddies, and my wits. King Poo was here, ready to help. And from the looks of things, my daughter controlled more powerful offensive PSI than I ever had.
            I yanked my red baseball cap out of my suitcase and slipped in on my head.
            “Okay, Jeff,” I replied. “Where do we start?”

Chapter 5

King Poo sliced though the undead menace effortlessly, Skye roasted ‘em, and with a baseball bat we borrowed from a memorabilia store in the hotel lobby, I was getting zombie guts all over Sammy Sosa’s signature. But in the short time since formulating our plan, the streets ran thick with rot.
            According to Jeff, there was only one place in Summers that could transmit the DEAD-HEAT signal across Eagleland: the radio station, WSMR. I wondered: How could a small station known for Beach Boys-style surf rock be the source of an apocalyptic plot to raise the dead?
            Then we tuned in. At first it was just some generic tune about hot cars, cute girls, and hitting the beach. But then: “…and that was ‘Super Smash Summer’ by the Melee Bros.!” exclaimed the overexcited disc jockey. “I hope everyone out there in Listener Land is having a sizzlin’ summer, including Ness and his daughter, the beautiful Skye. Come on down here, Spankey, and the hits’ll just keep coming, if ya know that I mean! And don’t forget to pick up that phone because the next 10 callers get to hail Master Giygas! Yowza!”
They were leading us into a trap. But with we didn’t have many options.
            “This one goes out to all those gorgeous zombie girls out there!” blared the radio. “You can sink your teeth into me anytime! Hubba hubba!”
            Skye frowned. “Can someone turn that off?”
            I could have sworn I knew that D.J. from somewhere. 

*  *  *

It was getting harder to advance. For every zombie we took down, it seemed like two more joined the fray. I was glad that these zombies weren’t like the ones in the movies, because we must have been bitten more than 100 times collectively. The King was doing his best to heal us, but I could tell his PSI was growing weaker. And the heat was nearly causing me to pass out.
I wished I could have traded places with Tony, who was bunkered down in the hotel room for his own safety.
It was only a mile. Then half a mile. We were almost there, I told myself. Just a little bit more.
The receiver phone rang and I hastily answered, swinging the bat with my other hand. “Jeff? Anything you can do to help us?”
“Hello, it’s your Dad,” replied the phone. “You’ve been out there a long time now… It may be none of my business, but don’t you think it would be a good idea if you took a break?”
            “NOT NOW, DAD!” I exclaimed.
“I deposited $564 -”
I wailed a nearby zombie with the butt of my bat. It gnashed its teeth and lost consciousness.
“- $587 into your bank account.”
“Dad, I’m 33! You don’t need to keep giving me money like this.”
“Your dear old dad was also thinking about hitting the hay for the night.”
“It’s 7 a.m., Dad,” I said. “How did you even get this number?”
“Ness, you like to work hard, just like your mother. But, I don’t think it’s good to work too hard. I love you son.”
I sighed. “Thanks, Dad. I love you too.”
I had hardly stuffed the phone back in my shorts pocket when I heard my daughter exclaim, “There it is!”
I couldn’t believe that the broken down husk of a building ahead of us was the source of so much misery. What was once a vibrant paintjob had dulled to a light grey, accentuated with dirty black streaks and years of unchecked water damage. The windows on all six floors had been hastily boarded up, whether by station employees trying to avoid the undead or by Giygas’s followers fortifying the building, I didn’t know. And on the top was the antenna that had been broadcasting DEAD-HEAT, unrestrained, for more than two weeks.
“I bet Jeff could make one heck of a laser gun outta that,” I muttered.
The undead were packed shoulder to shoulder around the building. There was no way we were going to get in without casualties. My heart sank.
“Ness!” yelled the King. “You’ve got to destroy that antenna! I’m going to take care of our enemies here, but you and Skye need to run as soon as you have a chance. Just get in when you can!”
“Poo, how do you think you’re going to…?”
“Just be ready!”
I grabbed Skye, put her on my shoulders, and told her to hang on.
The King jumped into the middle of the crowd and put his hands together in meditation. The undead around him scratched and bit, but he continued unflinching.
“PSI Starstorm Omega!”
The sky opened and the heavens expelled celestial fire. There was a torrent of decaying limbs and green blood.
A path had emerged to the radio station entrance.
Poo collapsed to one knee. My instinct was to aid my old friend, but I saw the remaining undead were already filling in the gaps left by their predecessors.
The king said only one word: “Go!”
As I hurried through the charred remains of the building’s front door, Skye and I heard King Poo’s sword gracefully unsheathed.
“Come get some,” he beckoned.

Chapter 6

My watch stopped calculating the temperature increase at 120 degrees. Sweat stinging my eyes, I trudged up six flights of steps to the top of the building.
There was no one else at the station, it had seemed, but clearly someone didn’t want us to succeed: The final set of stairs had been blocked by furniture and old radio equipment.
“Daddy,” whispered Skye. “What now?”
“I’ll have to try to climb onto the roof from one of the windows on the top floor,” I replied. I turned back and cautiously entered the sixth floor.
With the boarded up windows blocking the sun, I had no idea where to go. But a faint light shone from the last room on the left.
My stomach churned. Something bad was about to happen.
I crept down the hallway, baseball bat at the ready. Skye was holding her breath.  
I ran in swinging. The bat crashed into the window. Boards toppled down and hundreds of glass shards glimmered in the light that was now flooding the room.
“The years haven’t been kind to you, Spankey,” whispered a voice from behind.
No, there was no way…! Yet Pokey stood before me. He looked exactly how I remember him from my childhood.
“How are you even…?!”
“You’re about ready to wet your pants, aren’t you?” he laughed through an inhuman, ear to ear grin. “Let’s get it on, Spankey!”
A flash and a sting in my jaw. How did he hit me so quickly? He hadn’t even moved!
“I was just fooling around before, when we were neighbors,” he hissed. “This time I’m going to kill you. Then I’m going to enjoy taking your daughter apart piece by piece. Slowly.”
“You monster!”
My bat whizzed through the air violently, again and again. Pokey kept dodging, countering. And if I stood still, he just pummeled me where I stand. It was like fighting a coked-up Yoda. I couldn’t land a single hit.
Skye tried desperately to help me though her tears, but the PSI just fizzed out before even reaching the beast.
I could taste blood. PSI Life-up was useless. I tried anyway, again and again, in between his relentless attack. My PSI was gone entirely.
Pokey stared at me with that unnerving, unbroken smile. His twisted eyes danced with delight.
“Remember when we used to play Mortal Kombat at the arcade down the street, Ness?” Pokey asked, gleefully. “You remember what would happen when one combatant couldn’t fight anymore?”
My daughter got on her knees. “Daddy, concentrate!” Skye prayed from the bottom of her heart. “The woman from my dreams is telling you to concentrate!”
I closed my eyes and in my mind, I saw Pokey standing before me. Near his heart was a faint gold shimmer, like Paula’s hair in the sun so many years ago.
I raised my bat and dashed forward. I felt a snap in my left wrist, then searing pain.
The bat had splintered into toothpicks. I was still holding the knob and the grip. The majority of the barrel was lodged in the adjacent sheetrock wall. (Sorry, Sammy.)
Pokey clutched his chest, heaving.
“How do you… keep… winning?” he stammered. “I’m better than you! I’m… better…!”
Something tumbled from Pokey’s chest and rolled out in front of me – a huge chunk of the Mani Mani statue.
I grinded it beneath my heel.
The illusion broken, Pokey’s figure faded away, revealing a Starman model I’d never seen before. It was a shiny turquoise and it radiated a dark aura. Judging from how fast and tough it was, it must have been made of titanium.
With the nightmare rock destroyed, I felt a familiar power welling up in me. I knew instantly: That thing had been weakening my PSI for years!
All the self-doubt, all the fear, all the bad memories of my childhood battle against the Universal Destroyer – they were gone in an instant. The power of Giant Step, Milky Well, Lumine Hall and the rest was mine to wield once more. With a shattered wrist and my only weapon in pieces, I was going to need it.
The Starman whirred and clicked.
“Assessment: Battle plan compromised. Primary objective remains unchanged: Protect DEAD-HEAT and destroy Ness. Resuming combat under secondary battle plan.”
“Ness!” Paula spoke directly to my mind. “With the Mani Mani statue gone, you can use PSI again. Please, let me lend you my power as well.”
I felt her strength mingling with my own. My senses peaked. My wounds healed. My emotions flared.
“Skye! PSI Freeze! Now!”
Ice clung to the hapless machine. The Starman’s body solidified!
I ordered Skye to stand close to me where I could keep her safe. I gathered all my power, all my anger, and all my love.
“PSI Rockin’ Omega!”
King Poo told me how the blast shattered every window on the top floor, as if someone had triggered an atom bomb. Pieces of the building sailed through the air, slamming into the streets.
Smoke stung our eyes and seared our lungs. Skye and I coughed and coughed until finally, the room was clear enough to see. Before us lied the smoldering remains of the strange Starman.
“Yeah, Pokey,” I said smugly, “just like Mortal Kombat. Toasty!”
We heard a massive creaking and got to the window just in time to see the antenna hit the ground outside, crumbling into a heap of scrap. The force of battle must have been too much for it to take.
With the DEAD-HEAT signal cut off, the zombies returned to the dust of the earth. A cooling breeze caressed my dripping cheeks.


            “Are you sure you won’t stay for lunch?”
            The king shook his head.
            “My people need me. And besides, you know I’m not too fond of the food around here.”
            “Or anywhere,” I said.
            He smiled.
            I thanked King Poo for his help one more time and he dashed off, disappearing into the crowd of tourists.
            The beaches were packed as usual. Since we had thwarted Gigyas’ plans so early in the morning and the zombies had disintegrated and blew away, vacationers had no idea anything had been wrong. Most businesses, lured by the sweet promise of cash, were open. They weren’t going to let a little thing like a zombie apocalypse stop them from making a buck.
            I hadn’t even heard of anyone being injured.
            My daughter and I were too wound up to sleep and decided to head to the beach ourselves. While I was waiting for Skye to change into her bathing suit, Paula’s voice filled my mind once more.
            “You did an excellent job, Ness.”
            “Well, you were a real help,” I replied. “But let me ask you something. Why didn’t you come to us in person?”
            Paula chucked.
            “Because you didn’t need me. Besides, you have Skye now.”

*  *  *

            The water in Summers is clear, like crystal, so you can see several feet in front of you if you can get over the shock of having your eyes open underwater.
            Skye swam past me again like a little dolphin. We both came up for air at the same time and laughed.
I never thought I’d consider 85 degrees on the cool side, but man, did it ever feel good to be out of that heat wave.
We walked out of the water and flopped down on our beach towel. Skye started packing sand in a bucket for her castle. I lazily helped her dig a moat.
My wife had been right. No more bad dreams, no more blue moods. This vacation had done wonders for me.
Serrah emerged from the gaggle of beachgoers lined up by gelato cart. I waved at her and she hurried over.
Serrah smiled at me.
“Sorry I’m late,” she said. “Did I miss anything?”

Friday, October 23, 2015

An Assassin’s Creed Retrospective, Part III: Pirates of the Caribbean

It’s October 23, 2015, and that means that Ubisoft’s highly anticipated Assassin’s Creed: Syndicate has finally hit store shelves, much the way that Chris Brown [JOKE RETRACTED]

He's not my favorite.
But before popping the game into our PlayStation 4s (or that other One nobody likes) let’s delve a bit farther into Syndicate’s noble lineage.

Last time, the series’ lovable mainstay Ezio and also that insufferable nitwit Desmond Miles made their final contributions to the series; George Washington took on the British with the help of proud Native American warrior Connor Kenway; and Washington went mad with power in a bizarre-but-captivating “what if” tale.

This time, the Assassin’s Creed series goes portable in the Big Easy before docking in the 18th century for a Caribbean vacation teeming with sweaty pirates.

Assassin’s Creed: Liberation. Release Date: 10/2012. Available on PlayStation Vita. HD version Release Date: 1/2014. Available on Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, and PC

Welcome to New Orleans. Meet Aveline, a mixed race female Assassin – a first for the series. Aveline is a likable protagonist, so it’s really too bad that the storyline she’s dropped into feels so disjointed. The plot approaches entertaining so many times, but falls just short, like Aveline missing that whip jump at the end of Scenario 4 OVER AND OVER AGAIN WHAT THE HELL WHO PROGRAMED THIS. Uneven, often laughable voiceovers seal the deal.

The Persona system has Aveline switching between three guises: Assassin, which allows her full use of all sorts of stabbers, slicers, and cool hats; Slave, which excels in stealth but can only use light armaments; and Lady, which sucks at climbing, attacking, and staying alive, but excels at sucking. It reminds me of Final Fantasy V’s job system in that it’s meant to give the player more and varied tools to work with. But in practice, it’s more like the job system from Final Fantasy X-2, in that it’s a terrible abomination on par with your Christmas stocking stuffed with rocks and snot.

Then there’s the bayou, where approximately 7,000 percent of this game takes place. I really hope you like nondescript trees and vines, because if you’re looking to play more than just the main missions, you’ll be seeing a lot of them.

The HD version of the game, released on PS3 and Xbox 360, looks and plays well, but the title’s portable origins are inescapable. The lack of variety and short story are forgivable when staring down at a PS Vita, but on the big screen, it’s a lot less justified.

But you know what? Liberation gets a bad rap. It manages to be an entertaining experience despite its many flaws. While a bit shorter than your average Assassin’s Creed title and more reliant on nonsensical collectables to pad the experience, it’s a competent game and a worthy addition to the series.

Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag. Release Date: 10/2013. Available on Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, PC, Wii U, Xbox One and PlayStation 4.

Assassin’s Creed makes the jump to next-gen hardware, and boy, does it look great. The Caribbean setting is a sight to behold, with warm waves crashing against lonely beaches and sand so realistic you can almost feel it in between your toes.

Remember stoic Assassin’s Creed III protagonist Conor Kenway and his asshat dad, Haytham? Well get ready to meet grandpa! Back in the day, Capt. Edward Kenway was but a lowly, potentially flatulent pirate, getting drunk, sailing about, and searching for sweet, sweet booty.

Dat booty, doh.

Anyway, Capt. Kenway runs into all manner of scumbags like Blackbeard, Calico Jack, and a bunch of other arr-seholes, and promptly stabs them all to death like any good psychopath would. The pirate first dons hidden blades after he steals them from a real assassin, but over the course of 80 or so hours of fun and varied gameplay, he comes to uphold the Assassin’s Creed for the greater good.

Unlike ACIII, Capt. Kenway has full control over his ship and crew, heading from island to island, causing trouble, and generally just bein’ a pirate. With sailing so fully integrated into the Black Flag experience, ACIII’s linear naval missions look like child’s play in comparison.

As per Ubisoft law, all the fun of adventuring often comes to a screeching halt in favor of the world’s greatest office simulator. From a gloriously underwhelming first person perspective, the player wanders around what’s obviously a video version of Ubisoft, looking for something, or whatever. I don’t even know, but the perspective really makes me wish my unnamed character was holding a rocket launcher or doing anything even remotely interesting.

Maybe it’s the Caribbean setting – I’ve always been a sucker for anything that reminds me of summertime – or maybe it’s the fact that Black Flag was my first Assassin’s Creed game, but I could sail the seven seas with Capt. Kenway any day.

This game is yo, ho, ho and a bottle of FUN. Yeah, I just cringed too. Get over it.

Assassin’s Creed IV: Freedom Cry. Release Date: 2/2014. PlayStation 3, PlayStation 4, and PC

Capt. Kenway’s former shipmate, freed slave Adéwalé, takes the helm in this standalone expansion for Assassin’s Creed IV.

Running on the same engine as Black Flag, there’s not much different between the two titles. While ACIII’s Tyranny of King Washington featured expectation-shattering animal powers, and Liberation was a short-but-legitimate game unto itself, Freedom Cry can be completed in an afternoon.

Players might remember Adéwalé’s seemingly hasty exit from the original ACIV, and this is the reason why. Honestly, Adéwalé is a strong enough character to warrant his own game, but this bite-sized offering just isn’t enough. I think I’d rather he stuck around in Black Flag and have had Freedom Cry focus on someone else, like Capt. Kenway’s daughter, former Coca-Cola mascot Max Headroom, or Fonzie from Happy Days.

Freedom Cry is not bad overall, but it’s also not worth the $15 asking price. What I DO find entertaining is saying Adéwalé. Adéwalé, Adéwalé, Adéwalé. Come on, say it out loud.

I knew you’d like it.


Next time, Assassin’s Creed says goodbye to the Americas and hello to the City of Lights.